The way it’s looking, the country’s next generation of aerial refueling tankers will be in the pipeline for more than a decade before the first plane goes into service. That may explain why a couple of key congressmen are getting impatient, but it doesn’t justify the hasty response they are proposing.
Rather than demand that the Pentagon choose the best bid, Reps. John Murtha, D-Pa., and Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, think the two competitors should share the lucrative contract as an expedient way of overcoming political delays and getting the project on track.
Haste, as they say, makes waste, but Murtha is chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, and Abercrombie heads the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Air and Land Forces. Their roles give them an influential say.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has called the split contract a “terrible idea,” even if it can forestall a showdown among members of Congress whose constituents have a stake in the outcome. Those, for example, from Washington, where Boeing would like to make the KC-767, or from Alabama, where a largely European consortium headed by American partner Northrop Grumman proposes to assemble the Airbus KC-30.
Once, not long after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, the Pentagon hoped to have new tankers in the air in 2013.
The Air Force is eager to replace some 600 KC-135s which have been around for nearly a half-century and handle 80 percent of the nation’s aerial refueling; time is indeed of the essence. But after several setbacks, including last year’s controversial bid award to Grumman, subsequently invalidated when the Government Accountability Office decided that the process was flawed, the best hope now is that the $35 billion contract might be awarded in 2010.
When the KC-135s will be another year older.
If each bidder gets part of the contract, the Air Force will wind up needing separate training programs to operate and maintain two different aircraft that perform the same task – not to mention separate inventories of parts.
That seems inefficient on its face, although the Rand Corp. has concluded that a mixed fleet wouldn’t cost more. But even if that’s so – and Gates, among others, thinks it’s not – a larger problem still looms: If a legitimate evaluation is carried through to a valid conclusion, all 179 planes in the initial contract will be of the best design. If the work is divided, however, half of the planes will be of lesser quality.
For the sake of the national defense, American taxpayers and the personnel who would fly the new tankers, many of them from Fairchild Air Force Base, a political solution is not what’s needed.